The Masquerade of the Reaper
Even in mourning, the League cannot help but make a grand show. Each year at the Winter solstice, the Masquerade of the Reaper offers citizens a chance to celebrate the lives of those they have lost, which they do with great style. In the cities themselves, plazas and squares - and the occasional street - becomes the scene of a feast and associated festivities arranged by wealthy guilds and local businesses. Residents compete to demonstrate their Prosperity with fine food, unique entertainments, and extravagant decorations.
Since the death of Britta and her court, along with any luminaries of League society, the celebrations at Anvil had become increasingly subdued. Shortly before the WInter Solstice 382YE, the league egregore resolved to put an end to this decline and revitalise the celebration on the fields of Anvil.
The festival has its roots in dramaturgy and the League's love affair with masks - although some scholars point out some semantic similarities with the Highborn - Day of the Dead which also takes place at the Winter Solstice. Where the Day of the Dead is quite stoic and dark, however, the League festival is a time of bittersweet celebration designed to bring the community together and emphasis the loyal bonds that unit them.
There are a number of traditions associated with the Masquerade of the Reaper. While the festival is recognisable across the League, individual cities put their own unique spin on them. Caterina's plan to reinvigorate the Anvil Masquerade is to include the most popular traditions practised in one or more of the cities.
The celebration usually begins in early evening, and formally ends at sunset. In practice, festivities will often continue long into the night. Caterina has indicated that going forwards, the start of the celebration at Anvil will be marked by the pouring of water from the four rivers into the font, as is traditional in parts of Sarvos. This will be followed by a short recitation or speech from the Doctor (often the egregore, or someone chosen by them specifically to take this role). The last formal element of the festival is a dance begun by the Doctor and their chosen partner, which often involves any death guisers dancing with one of the living.
Festivities may continue long after dark, with the guilds remaining open for business as the central Plaza transforms into the night market. A visitor to The League camp at this time might be forgiven for thinking the whole area was reminiscent of a stage, with every citizen performing. They would not be far wrong.
The Cold Feast
At the centre of any Masquerade in most parts of the League is a table prepared and placed in an accessible location, generally covered in black cloth. Where possible, they are placed around a fountain - explaining why it is so common to hold the celebration in plazas and squares. Where no fountain is available, a basin or sculpture is usually placed instead - as long as it can contain water it can serve as a centrepiece. In Sarvos especially it is common to begin the festival by pouring river water representing the life-blood of the city into the fountain. Since every city will be represented at Anvil - Caterina has suggested that each one of four senators might step forward with a bowl of water to represent their city. If they are not available she intends to find someone to stand in their place, so that the central font can be filled with water drawn from each of the four great rivers of the League.
In some streets it is common for everyone present to bring forth suitable masks or occasionally masked icons to decorate the font or fountain. The masks represent the Captain, the Witch, the Bishop, the Mountebank, and the Prince. Conspicuous by her absence is the image of the Doctor. According to stories, the presence of the five personae calls to the sixth - to the Doctor - and brings her to preside over the festivities. In many parts of Tassato there is a specific set of masks or icons used for this purpose, kept year to year by a respected local businessperson. In others, new decorations are created each year - the most common way being for a prestigious local guild, troupe, church, or respected citizen to be responsible for providing one of the personae. Caterina intends to bring masks for the festival but everyone who is attending Anvil is encouraged to bring a mask of their own to place on the table if they have one that is suitable.
The egregore has asked if everyone attending the festival will consider supporting the popular tradition of shared food if they are able. This tradition began in Temeschwar where every guild, family, business, or prosperous individual often seeks to bring the best food or drink to share with the community. These are placed on the table, forming a buffet supper open to all the guests. Despite the name, households that include a skilled cook will often produce something hot to eat, but fruit (dried or fresh), nuts, pastries, sugared sweets and all manner of simple morsels that can be picked up and consumed are normal fayre. There is no official competition, but informally the wealthiest and most ambitious often strive to see who can produce the finest, most exotic, or most complimented dish.
The masquerade usually includes a sombre note. In Holberg and other parts citizens place memento mori - small items that symbolise the dead. While it is most common to mourn these who have died in the last year, it is also typical for a particularly missed loved one to be commemorated. Memento mori might be temporary items - miniature paintings and sketches, poems, heartfelt letters that will never be delivered - or more permanent and meaningful representations - a favoured mask, a ring, a sculpture. The memento mori are usually placed behind the platters of food - the point being to show that the dead are always with the living, and that this feast is about creating a connection - however tenuous - between those who are still alive and those who have passed into the Labyrinth. It is common to leave letters, poems and the like until the morning but memento mori that are durable and expensive are taken away by their own when they leave the festival.
The Doctors Mask
It is considered the worst possible luck to let Death see your own face, as then they will know what to look for during the year to come. Any Leaguer thus knows the importance of wearing a mask for protection, while many have tales of someone who flaunted this tradition and came to an unfortunate end soon after. Some citizens prefer to wear a beautiful decorative mask, often a domino or half-face mask. These might be adorned with semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli. Bolder citizens will chose a dramaturgical mask, hoping to draw on the strengths of the character in question in the year to come. There are powerful hearth magic associated with masks that should not be under-estimated.
Of course one mask is specially reserved; that of the Doctor, that represents death itself. Traditionally, this mask is worn by those who organise and oversee the festivities. In Anvil, the egregore sometimes dons the mask of the Doctor but they will often ask a handful of other citizens to wear the mask as well, to help encourage the celebrations and spread the festivities.
Scholars often compare this dramaturgic personification of Death to that of the Freeborn. On the Brass Coast, Death is often portrayed as a foolish figure of fun; while there is an air of festivity to the role of the Doctor, the traditions that surround its celebratory incarnation are deadly serious. It is unsurprising that the two nations have similar customs relating to the personification of death - some scholars see this as a reaction to their shared historical connection to the Highborn.
The Danse Macabre
Death guising is an important part of the Masquerade of the Reaper. A death guiser is a trusted individual who is asked to wear the clothes and mask of the deceased. They take on the role of the deceased, so that grieving friends and family may speak last words to their loved one. Death guising normally happens at funerals, but it also takes place at the Masquerade. Being asked to take on the death guise at any time implies a great deal of trust and respect, but this is especially true at this grand memorial performance. It is considered a great honour to be asked to play the role of someone who has gone to the Labyrinth, so much so that some people will turn down the request if they do not feel they are worthy to stand for the dead person.
An individual who is death guising will attend the Masquerade in character, dressed as the dead, they strive to act as the person they are portraying throughout. Usually the death guiser will arrange with the organizers of the festival to appear with the Doctor - to reflect the idea that is the Doctor who brings the shades of the recently deceased back from the Labyrinth.
Once there, any of the citizens of the League who attend Anvil may speak with them and make a (symbolic) public presentation to the spirits of the dead. Any words said to the masked figure are, as far as Leaguers are concerned, spoken to the dead and thus to be taken to the Labyrinth. The role is taken very seriously - significant Dead Reckoning may be recorded for the favour of taking on a guise, or the honour of being asked.
The festival includes a great many entertainments; and as in all things, the League cannot help but be competitive about them. No-one officially judges who performs the finest play or hosts the finest gathering, but be in no doubt that citizens keep score of who and what has impressed or offended them. Leading theatre troupes and musicians will be sure to perform publically and many of the more fashion conscious will choose this time to reveal their new outfits.
On many Holberg streets and in other cities it is traditional to conclude the entertainments and the festival itself with the Danse Macabre. The Danse Macabre is different to what has gone before, more sombre in tone. Choices vary but the music is usually slower, with a haunting or melancholy tune. Those who are present at the end will line up to perform the dance, which is always simple with a strong processional element, often circling around the central fount. Dancers will form pairs, and often hold hands, but only ever one, never both. It is considered the height of misfortune for a dancer in the Macabre to put both hands on their partner.
Anyone who is death guising will usually take this opportunity to dance with whoever knew or loved the person best in life. The doctor will also pick a partner, usually someone who is perceived to have been notable in support of the League in recent times. To be chosen brings good fortune, provided that the doctor never puts both hands on their partner at the same time - that almost inevitably leads to certain death. At the conclusion of the dance, the doctor will leave the festival, accompanied by the death guisers, who return with death to the Labyrinth.
The Quietus Coin
The giving of gifts to loved ones is very common during the festival, although individual guilds have very varied traditions; outsiders would be well warned to subtly find out what is normal for any guild they have regular dealings with. For some, the gift of food and drink is the norm, while others take pride in giving small but much more personal trinkets.
As the egregore has indicated that they intend to ensure there is a suitable fount for the celebration of the waters, it means that it will now be possible for citizens at Anvil to give the Quietus Coin, a popular tradition in many Masquerades throughout the League. The Quietus gift is a single coin thrown into the waters, while whispering a prayer for the departed. The rich give their Prosperity throwing in crowns or even thrones. The poor give the League their Loyalty throwing a ring coin into the fountain.
Some priests frown on this behaviour - concerned that it strays into areas of blasphemy or idolatry - but nonetheless it persists. Most often these prayers are simply messages for the dead; some urban tales claim that as long as the coin is given freely the dead will hear the whispered message. Whatever the belief, the Quietus Coin is intended to be a moment of reflection, a moment to reflect on what is owed to those who have passed.
It is considered a major breach of etiquette to take coins from the water - in League cities it is treated as a serious theft. At the end of the celebration, the Quietus Coins thrown into the waters are collected and given to the Church of the Little Mother to help them in their charitable endeavours.
The cities of the League are always bustling, not just with League citizens but with people from every lands. Trade is the life-blood of the League and they reach out to welcome people from all parts. The Masquerade of the Reaper is no exception, there is an open door to those who are visiting a League city when the festival to join in... provided that they respect the traditions of the night and wear a mask. It is considered appropriate to chase off anyone who attempts to attend the celebration without a mask - for their own safety as much as anything else.
Visitors are welcome to place memento mori on the table, if they wish to remember their own dead or to place a Quietus Coin in the fount. They are also welcome to partake of the food that is shared freely - even if they have not brought victuals of their own to share. However a visitor that does bring a gift of food for the table of the dead will be accorded high respect by those who recognise them, a reflection of the Wisdom and Prosperity they have displayed.
Mountebanks and Tricksters
Amongst the street magicians the festival has a gained a slightly different flavour. It is known unofficially as the Masquerade of the Red Dancer. Daring acts of sabotage and infiltration are committed under heavy masks, and it is said the greatest long cons have reached their climax on this night. The knowledge of this tradition adds an extra frisson of danger to the celebration - at the back of the mind of each prince and bishop is the vague suspicion that this might be the night where some unscrupulous trickster, grifter or thief unravels their carefully laid plans.
Thanks to Tim Baker, Lizy Townshend, Rick and an unnamed fourth collaborator plus the League facebook group players for there assistance with the original write-up of the Masquerade